Michael Seitz

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646

"The Innocent," despite a dated story, is a serious and masterfully made film, especially notable for its elegant mise en scène and visual sumptuousness….

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Although it cannot be said to represent Visconti's final testament, the film does reflect a mastery of the medium acquired over the course of a long and distinguished career. (p. R18)

The film's initial sequence of credits reveals an old but sensitive hand (Visconti's own) carefully turning the pages of a first edition of Gabriele D'Annunzio's L'Innocente, the 1892 novel from which the movie was adapted. This apparent reverence for the text would seem to suggest a faithful rendering of the novel, but this is not the case. All that has been rendered are the bare bones.

D'Annunzio's work is a rather tedious and highly introspective first-person narrative that, in its verbal indulgences and intellectual snobbishness, represents the Italian author at his worst. Visconti's film is more dramatic, more richly textured, and it places its action within a social setting that the novel largely ignores. Almost all of the film's most striking scenes and one of the major characters (the mistress is barely mentioned in the novel) are the creations of Visconti and his collaborators…. (pp. R19-R20)

Visconti, who has always had a special genius for staging, has endowed "The Innocent" with some of the most sumptuous scenes to be found in the cinema. Through the most careful attention to detail and period authenticity, and by means of an exquisite balancing and juxtapositioning of rich colors and textures, the film manages to make the material world of the fin de siècle European aristocracy startlingly palpable….

The luxurious beauty of the settings is not, however, an end in itself, but a necessary context for the film's dramatic action. The estates and salons, with their silent, attentive servants, represent a world of apparent order and stability. Wealth and privilege insulate its members from the disruptive changes forming the modern world, and elaborate rules of decorum protect their society from internal disruption….

The elegance and decorum we witness in "The Innocent" are only a veneer, barely concealing the disastrous lack of moral principle that underlies them. The substance of such traditional aristocratic values as faith, honor, and duty had been eroded by the Enlightenment and by the rise of capitalism, and there was nothing to replace them but a naïve belief in personal freedom—a belief that, in practical terms, translated into personal indulgence. It is this moral failure, embodied in Tullio Hermil, that Visconti has given cinematic dramatization….

One of the most revealing sequences in "The Innocent" (it is repeated with some variations later in the film) takes place at a formal social gathering for a musical soirée…. It is an image of harmony—a privileged vision of privileged people in a moment of both physical and spiritual repose. In the midst of the performance, however, there are repeated exits and entrances, whispered conversations—movements and sounds that draw our attention away from the recital. It soon becomes clear that these interruptions are indicative of the inner agitations and personal worries that preoccupy the beautiful people who have gathered here.

The musical is little more than a pretext for assignations, for the formal display of marriageable young daughters, and for the verification of social status. It is a scene right out of Proust….

I wish that Visconti had in fact been adapting Proust, and not a minor work of D'Annunzio…. He has, nonetheless, made a film of greater richness and strength than the literary work on which it is based. This is vintage Visconti, and that alone is sufficient cause for rejoicing. (p. R20)

Michael Seitz, "Two New Films from Italy Share the Same Star and Attitude, but the Similarities Are Only Skin Deep," in The Chronicle Review (copyright © 1979 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.), March 5, 1979, pp. R18-R20.∗

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